|Shree Mukhtiyar General
|Bhimsen Thapa, the Mukhtiyar (equivalent to Prime Minister) of Nepal from 1806 to 1837|
|Mukhtiyar of Nepal|
|Monarch||Girvan Yuddha Bikram Shah
Rajendra Bikram Shah
|Preceded by||Rana Bahadur Shah
|Succeeded by||Ranjang Pande|
Pipal Thok village in Borlang, Gorkha district, Nepal
|Died||5 August 1839
Bhim-Mukteshowr, Kathmandu, Nepal
|Allegiance||Kingdom of Nepal|
Bhimsen Thapa (Nepali: भीमसेन थापा; August 1775 – 5 August, 1839) was the Mukhtiyar[note 1] of Nepal (equivalent to prime minister) from 1806 to 1837. He initially served as King Rana Bahadur Shah's bodyguard and personal secretary. Bhimsen followed Rana Bahadur in his exile; and after Rana Bahadur's subsequent return to power, Bhimsen was given the position of a kaji. Rana Bahadur's assassination by his step brother in 1806 led Bhimsen to massacre ninety-three people, after which he managed to claim the title of the mukhtiyar. The immature age of King Girvan Yuddha Bikram Shah and King Rajendra Bikram Shah, coupled with the support from Queen Tripurasundari (the junior queen of Rana Bahadur Shah) allowed him to continue to stay in power. During his prime ministership, the Gurkha empire had reached its greatest expanse from Sutlej river in the west to the Teesta river in the east. Nepal entered into a disastrous Anglo-Nepalese War with the East India Company lasting from 1814–16, which was concluded with the Treaty of Sugauli, by which Nepal lost almost one-third of its land. The death of Queen Tripurasundari in 1832, his strongest supporter, and the adulthood of King Rajendra, weakened his hold on power. The conspiracies and infighting with rival courtiers (especially the Pandes, who held Bhimsen Thapa responsible for the death of Damodar Pande in 1805) finally led to his imprisonment and death by suicide.
- 1 Early years
- 2 Rise to power: 1798 - 1804
- 3 As Kaji: 1804 - 1806
- 4 As Mukhtiyar: 1806 - 1832
- 5 Infighting
- 6 Downfall: 1832 - 1838
- 7 Suicide: 1839
- 8 Aftermath
- 9 Footnotes
- 10 References
- 11 Sources
- 12 Further reading
Bhimsen Thapa was born in August 1775 at Pipal Thok village of Borlang in Gorkha district, to father Amar Singh Thapa (sanu)[note 2] and mother Satyarupa Maya. His grandfather was Bir Bhadra Thapa, a courtier in Prithvi Narayan Shah's army. Bhimsen Thapa had four brothers—Nain Singh, Bhaktawar Singh, Amrit Singh, and Ranbir Singh. From his step-mother, he had two brothers—Ranbam and Ranzawar. While it is not certain when Bhimsen got married, he had three wives with whom he begot one son, that died at an early age in 1796, and three daughters — Lalita Devi, Janak Kumari and Dirgha Kumari. Lack of a son caused him to adopt Sher Jung Thapa, son of his brother Nain Singh Thapa.
Not much detail is known about Bhimsen Thapa's early life. At the age of 11, Bhimsen possibly came into contact with the Nepalese Royal Palace when his bratabandha ceremony was held together with the Crown Prince Rana Bahadur's in Gorkha in 1785. In 1798, his father took him to Kathmandu and enrolled him as a bodyguard to the king. In Kathmandu, Bhimsen took up residence at Thapathali (which, in Nepali, literally means "the place of Thapas"), after which he lived in Bagh Durbar near Tundikhel after becoming a kaji (equivalent to a minister).
Rise to power: 1798 - 1804
The premature death of Pratap Singh Shah (reigned 1775–77), the eldest son of Prithvi Narayan Shah, left a huge power vacuum that remained unfilled for decades, seriously debilitating the emerging Nepalese state. Pratap Singh Shah's successor was his son, Rana Bahadur Shah (reigned 1777–99), aged two and one-half years at his accession. The acting regent until 1785 was Queen Rajendralakshmi, followed by Bahadur Shah (reigned 1785–94), the second son of Prithvi Narayan Shah. Court life was consumed by rivalry centered on alignments with these two regents rather than on issues of national administration, and it set a bad precedent for future competition among contending regents. The exigencies of Sino-Nepalese War in 1788-92 had forced Bahadur Shah to temporarily take a pro-British stance, which had led to a commercial treaty with the British in 1792.
Meanwhile, Rana Bahadur's youth had been spent in pampered luxury which had made him incapable of running either his own life or the country. In 1794 King Rana Bahadur Shah came of age, and his first act was to re-constitute the government such that his uncle, Bahadur Shah, had no official part to play. In mid 1795, he became infatuated with a Maithili Brahman widow, Kantavati Jha, and married her on the oath of making their illegitimate half-caste son (as per the Hindu law of that time) the heir apparent, by excluding the legitimate heir from his previous marriage.[note 3] By 1797, his relationship with his uncle, who was living a retired life, and who wanted to seek refuge in China on the pretext of meeting the new emperor, had deteriorated to the extent that he ordered his imprisonment (on 19 February 1797) and his subsequent murder (on 23 June 1797). Such acts earned Rana Bahadur notoriety both among courtiers and common people, especially among Brahmins; and it signaled how treacherous his reign was going to be.
That same year in 1797, Girvan Yudda Bikram Shah was born and was immediately declared the crown prince. However, within a year of Girvan's birth, Kantavati contracted smallpox; and it was advised by physicians that she perform ascetic penances to cure herself. To make sure that Girvan succeeded to the throne while Kantavati was still alive, Rana Bahadur, aged just 23, abdicated in favor of their son on 23 March, 1799, placing his first wife, Rajrajeshwori, as the regent. He joined his ailing wife, Kantavati, with his second wife, Subarnaprabha, in ascetic life and started to live in Deopatan, donning saffron robes and titling himself Swami Nirgunanda.[note 4] This move was also supported by all the courtiers who were discontented of his wanton and capricious behavior. It was around this time that both Bhimsen Thapa and his father Amar Singh Thapa (sanu) were promoted from subedar to the rank of sardar, and Bhimsen began to serve as the ex-King's chief bodyguard. However, Rana Bahadur's renunciation lasted only a few months. After the inevitable death of Kantavati, Rana Bahadur suffered a mental breakdown during which he lashed out by desecrating temples and cruelly punishing the attendant physicians and astrologers. He then renounced his ascetic life and attempted to re-assert his royal authority. This led to a direct conflict with almost all the courtiers who had pledged a holy oath of allegiance to the legitimate King Girvan; this conflict eventually led to the establishment of a dual government and to an imminent civil war, with Damodar Pande leading the military force against the dissenting ex-King and his group. Since most of the military officers had sided with the courtiers, Rana Bahadur realized that his authority could not be re-established; and he was forced to flee to the British controlled city of Varanasi in May, 1800.
Exile in Varanasi
As Rana Bahadur Shah's bodyguard and advisor, Bhimsen Thapa also accompanied him to Varanasi. Rana Bahadur's retinue included his first wife, Rajrajeswori, while his second wife, Subarnaprabha, stayed back in Kathmandu to serve as the regent. Since Rana Bahadur was willing to do anything to regain his power and punish those who had forced him to exile, he served as a focal point of dissidenting factions in Varanasi. He first sought help from the British in exchange for which he was willing to concede a trading post in Kathmandu and grant them certain percentage of the tax revenue However, the British were in favor of working with the existing government in Nepal, rather than risk the uncertainties of restoring an exiled ex-King to power. The Kathmandu Durbar was willing to appease the British and agreed to sign a commercial treaty so long as the wayward Rana Bahadur and his group were held in India under strict British surveillance. This arrangement was kept a secret from Rana Bahadur and his group; but when they eventually became aware of the strictures on their movement, and hence the treaty, they were incensed at the British as well as the proponents (Damodar Pande and his faction) of this treaty in Nepal. An elaborate intrigue was set in motion with the aim of splitting the unity of courtiers in Kathmandu Durbar and fomenting anti-British feelings. A flurry of letters were exchanged between the ex-King and individual courtiers in which he tried to set them up against Damodar Pande and tried to woo them by promises of high government positions, which they could hold for their entire life, and which could be inherited by their progeny. 
Meanwhile, Rajrajeshowri, fed up of her debauch husband, left Varanasi, entered the border of Nepal on 26 July, 1801, and taking advantage of the weak regency, was slowly making her way towards Kathmandu with the view of taking over the regency. Back in Kathmandu the court politics turned complicated when Mul Kaji (or chief minister) Kirtiman Singh Basnet, a favorite of the Regent Subarnaprabha, was secretly assassinated on 28 September, 1801, by the supporters of Rajrajeswori. In the resulting confusion many courtiers were jailed, while some executed, based solely on rumors. Bakhatbar Singh Basnet, brother of assassinated Kirtiman Singh, was then given the post of mul kaji During his tenure as the mul kaji, on 28 October, 1801, a Treaty of Commerce and Alliace[note 5] was finally signed between Nepal and East India Company that led to the establishment of the first British Resident, Captain William O. Knox,[note 6] who was reluctantly welcomed by the courtiers in Kathmandu on 16 April, 1802. The primary objective of Knox's mission was to bring the trade treaty of 1792 into full effect and to establish a "controlling influence" in Nepali politics. Almost eight months after the establishment of the Residency, Rajrajeshowri finally managed to assume the regency on 17 December, 1802.
Return to Kathmandu
After Rajrajeshowri took over the regency, she was pressured by Knox to pay the annual pension of 82,000 rupees to the ex-King as per the obligations of the treaty, which paid off the vast debt that Rana Bahadur Shah had accumulated in Varanasi due to his spendthrift habits. The Nepalese court also felt it prudent to keep Rana Bahadur in isolation in Nepal itself, rather than in the British controlled India, and that paying off Rana Bahadur's debts could facilitate his return at an opportune moment. Rajrajeshowri's presence in Kathmandu also stirred unrest among the courtiers that aligned themselves around her and Subarnaprabha. Sensing an imminent hostility, Knox aligned himself with Subarnaprabha and attempted to interfere with the internal politics of Nepal. Getting a wind of this matter, Rajrajeshowri dissolved the government and elected new ministers, with Damodar Pande as the mul kaji, while the Resident Knox, finding himself persona non grata and the objectives of his mission frustrated, voluntarily left Kathmandu to reside in Makwanpur citing a cholera epidemic. Subarnaprabha and the members of her faction were arrested.
Such open display of anti-British feelings and humiliation prompted the Governor General of the time Richard Wellesley to recall Knox to India and unilaterally suspend the diplomatic ties. The Treaty of 1801 was also unilaterally annulled by the British on 24 January, 1804. The suspension of diplomatic ties also gave the Governor General a pretext to allow the ex-King Rana Bahadur to return to Nepal unconditionally.
As soon as they received the news, Rana Bahadur and his group proceeded towards Kathmandu. Some troops were sent by Kathmandu Durbar to check their progress, but the troops changed their allegiance when they came face to face with the ex-King. Damodar Pande and his men were arrested at Thankot where they were waiting to greet the ex-King with state honors and take him into isolation. After Rana Bahadur's reinstatement to power, he started to extract vengeance on those who had tried to keep him in exile. He exiled Rajrajeshhwori to Helambu, where she became a Buddhist nun, on the charge of siding with Damodar Pande and colluding with the British. Damodar Pande, along with his two eldest sons, who were completely innocent, were executed on 13 March, 1804; similarly some members of his faction were tortured and executed without any due trial, while many others managed to escape to India.[note 7] He also punished those who did not help him while in exile. Among them was Prithvipal Sen, the king of Palpa, who was tricked into imprisonment. Subarnaprabha and her supporters were released and given a general pardon. For those who had helped him to return to Kathmandu, they were lavished with rank, land, and wealth. Bhimsen Thapa was made a second kaji; Ranjit Pande, his brother's father-in-law, was made the mul kaji; Sher Bahadur Shah was made the mul chautariya; while Rangnath Paudel was made the raj guru (royal spiritual preceptor).
As Kaji: 1804 - 1806
After the power shuffle, in 1805, Bhimsen Thapa became the architect of an unpopular plan of seizing all the tax free land granted to temple guthis and Brahmin priests in order to easily fill the empty state coffers. The money was spent in financing the military campaigns in the far west in Jamuna-Sutlej region. This was a very radical reform in the staunchly religious society of the time and became known as Baisathi Haran in the Nepalese history.
Bhandarkhal massacre of 1806
After returning to Kathmandu, in complicity with Rana Bahadur Shah, Bhimsen Thapa indulged in appropriating the palaces and properties of deposed members of Shah family,[note 8] which he shared between himself and his supporter Rangnath Paudel. This aroused resentment and jealousy among Sher Bahadur Shah and his faction, since they did not receive any portion of this confiscated property, despite their help in reinstating Rana Bahadur to power.[note 9] They were also wary of Bhimsen's growing power. By this time, Rana Bahadur was a nominal figure and Kaji Bhimsen Thapa was single-handedly controlling the central administration of the country, being able to implement even unpopular reforms like Baisathi Haran.
Bhimsen felt the need to finish off his rivals, but at the same time, felt a need to take precaution before going after immediate members of the royal household. For almost two years after returning to Kathmandu, Rana Bahadur had no official position in the government — he was neither a king, nor a regent, nor a minister — yet he felt no qualms in using the full state power. Not only did Rana Bahadur carry out the Baisathi Haran under Bhimsen's advice, he was also able to banish all non-vaccinated children, as well as their parents, from the town during a smallpox outbreak, in order to prevent King Girvan from catching that disease. Now, after almost two year, all of a sudden Rana Bahadur was made mukhtiyar (royal representative) and Bhimsen tried to implement his schemes through Rana Bahadur. Tribhuvan Khawas (Pradhan), a member of Sher Bahadur's faction, was imprisoned on the re-opened charges of conspiracy with the British that led to the Knox's mission, but for which pardon had already been doled out, and was ordered to be executed. Tribhuvan Khawas decided to reveal everyone that was involved in the dialogue with the British. Among those implicated was Sher Bahadur Shah.
On the night of 25 April, 1806, Rana Bahadur Shah held a meeting at Tribhuvan Khawas's house with rest of the courtiers, during which he threatened to execute Sher Bahadur. At around 10 p.m., Sher Bahadur in desperation drew a sword and killed Rana Bahadur Shah before being cut down by nearby courtiers, Bam Shah and Bal Narsingh Kunwar, also allies of Bhimsen Thapa. The assassination of Rana Bahadur Shah triggered a great massacre in Bhandarkhal (a royal garden east of Kathmandu Durbar) and at the bank of Bishnumati river. That very night members of Sher Bahadur's faction — Bidur Shah, Tribhuvan Khawas, and Narsingh Gurung — and even King Prithvipal Sen of Palpa, who was under house arrest in Patan Durbar, were swiftly rounded up and killed in Bhandarkhal. Their dead bodies were not allowed funeral rites and were dragged and thrown by the banks of Bishnumati to be eaten by vultures and jackals. The next few days, all the sons of Sher Bahadur Shah, Bidur Shah, Tribhuvan Khawas and Narsingh Gurung, aged 2 to 15 were beheaded by the bank of Bishnumati; their wives and daughters were given to the untouchables, their body guards and servants were also put to death, and all their property seized. Bhimsen Thapa managed to kill everyone who did not agree with him or anyone who could potentially become a problem for him in the future. In this massacre that lasted for about two weeks, a total of ninety-three people (16 women and 77 men) lost their lives.
Almost one and half month before the massacre, upon insistence of Bhimsen Thapa, Rana Bahadur Shah, then 31 years old, had married a 14 year old girl named Tripurasundari on 7 March, 1806, making her his fifth legitimate wife. According to Baburam Acharya, Tripurasundari was possibly the daughter of Bhimsen's brother Nain Singh Thapa. Taking advantage of the political chaos, Bhimsen Thapa became the mukhtiyar (1806–37), and Tripurasundari was given the title Lalita Tripurasundari and declared regent and Queen Mother (1806–32) of Girvan Yuddha Shah, who was himself 9 years old. Thus, Bhimsen Thapa became the first person outside the royal household to hold the position of the mukhtiyar. All the other wives and concubines of Rana Bahadur Shah, along with their handmaidens, were forced to commit sati. Bhimsen obtained a royal mandate from King Girvan commanding all other courtiers to be obedient to him. Bhimsen Thapa further consolidated his power by disenfranchising the old courtiers from the central power by placing them as administrators of far flung provinces of the country. The courtiers were instead replaced by his close relatives, who were mere yes-men. On the spot where Rana Bahadur Shah drew his last breath, Bhimsen later built a commemorative Shiva temple by the name Rana-Mukteshowr.
As Mukhtiyar: 1806 - 1832
Expansion of Nepal
By the time Bhimsen Thapa came to power, the territory of Nepal extended up to the border of Garhwal in the west. During the reign of Bahadur Shah, Nepal had concluded a treaty with Garhwal demanding that it pay NRs. 9,000 per year. Later Rana Bahadur Shah reduced it to NRs. 3,000. However, in 1804, Garhwal refused to pay the amount upon which Bhimsen Thapa sent an army under the command of Bada Kaji Amar Singh Thapa (not to be confused with his father), Bhakti Thapa and Hastidal Shah to attack Garhwal. The army succeeded in annexing Garhwal to Nepalese territory extending the territory of Nepal up to the Sutlej river in the west. After the annexation of Garhwal, the Nepalese army attacked the fort of Kangra but was defeated by the combined army of Sansarchand, the ruler of Kangra, and that of Ranjeet Singh, the ruler of Punjab. Other states like Salyan were also annexed to Nepal during his reign. Before the Anglo-Nepal war the territory of Nepal extended from Sutleej river in the west to Teesta river in the east. Most of this territory, however, was lost in the Anglo-Nepal war.
The Anglo–Nepalese War (1814–1816), sometimes called the Gorkha War, was fought between Nepal and the British East India Company as a result of border tensions, trade dispute, and ambitious expansionism of both the belligerent parties. While the immediate reason for the war was the border dispute in the terai region, the war-like preliminary had been going on for more than a decade. Considering the many successes that the Gorkhali army had seen during the unification campaign of Nepal, Bhimsen Thapa was one of the main proponents of the war with the British, which was against the better advice of the likes of Bada Kaji Amar Singh Thapa, who actually did the fighting and knew about the hardships of war. His attitude before the war is summarized in the following letter to the Raja of Nepal, where we can find a hint of superstition on Nepalese invincibility:
Through the influence of your good fortune, and that of your ancestors, no one has yet been able to cope with the state of Nipal. The Chinese once made war upon us, but were reduced to seek peace. How then will the English be able to penetrate into the hills? Under your auspices, we shall by our own exertions be able to oppose to them a force of fifty-two lakhs of men, with which we will expel them. The small fort of Bhurtpoor was the work of man, yet the English being worsted before it, desisted from the attempt to conquer it; our hills and fastnesses are formed by the hand of God, and are impregnable. I therefore recommend the prosecution of hostilities. We can make peace afterwards on such terms as may suit our convenience.
The British launched two successive waves of invasion campaigns. The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816, which ceded around one-third of Nepal's territory to the British. Furthermore, according to the treaty, Nepal had to allow for the establishment of a permanent British resident in Kathmandu, and had to forgo all self-determination in foreign affairs. During the war, Bhimsen Thapa served as the Commander-in-Chief of the Nepalese army; and thus he had to bear the direct responsibility of Nepalese defeat.
Hold on power
On 20 November, 1816, King Girvan Yuddha died of smallpox, aged twenty-one, and was succeeded by his only son, Rajendra Bikram Shah, an infant of two years old. Bhimsen Thapa, in collusion with the queen regent, Tripurasundari, remained in power despite the defeat of Nepal in the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-16. After the war, he used all his influence in favor of peace with the British, "a Power," as he said, "that crushed thrones like potsherds." His foreign policy after the war was essentially the one handed down by Prithvi Narayan Shah — to keep Nepal isolated from any foreign influences. As such, although he was forced to accept a British Resident in Kathmandu as per the Treaty of Sugauli, he made sure to cutoff the Resident from all contacts with life in Nepal, to the point of making the Resident a virtual prisoner. Apart from petty harassments, the Resident was only allowed to travel within the Kathmandu valley, that too only with special escorts. The Resident was also barred from meeting the king or any Bhardars at will.
Bhimsen Thapa faced constant opposition at court from factions centered around leading members of other families, notably the Pandes,[note 10] who decried what they felt was his craven submission to the British. Bhimsen Thapa managed to keep his opposition under control by maintaining a large army and modernizing its equipment and by convincing the suspicious British that he had no intention of using the army. During the minority of King Rajendra Bikram Shah (reigned 1816–47), the prime minister kept the king in isolation — he did not even have the freedom to leave the palace without permission. Bhimsen Thapa appointed members of his own family to the highest positions at court and in the army, giving his brother, Ranbir Singh Thapa, control over the western provinces and his nephew, Mathbar Singh Thapa, control over the eastern provinces. The Pandes and other opponents were frozen out of power.
However Oldfield notes that:
The Nipal chiefs might, and may, quarrel among themselves for the possession of official dignities under the Crown, but there is not an instance on record of a Gorkha chief setting himself in open defiance of the Crown for the purpose of establishing independent authority. Nor is there an instance of a Nipal chief taking bribes from, or selling himself for money to, the British or any other foreign State. In 1801 Captain Knox wished to take Damudar Pandi and some of his colleagues into our pay; but they would not listen to the proposal. In 1816, as before in 1801, our Government offered pensions to certain Nipalese sirdars, but the Darbar had foresight enough to reject the offer.
Aside from the army and some attention to increasing trade, little effort could be expended on issues of national development.
The Gorkha aristocracy had led Nepal into disaster on the international front but preserved the political unity of the country, which at the end of the Anglo-Nepalese War in 1816 still was only about twenty-five years old as a unified nation. The success of the central government rested in part on its ability to appoint and control regional administrators, who also were high officers in the army. In theory these officials had great local powers; in practice they spent little energy on the daily affairs of their subjects, interfering only when communities could not cope with problems or conflicts. Another reason for Gorkha success in uniting the country was the willingness to placate local leaders by preserving areas where former kings and communal assemblies continued to rule under the loose supervision of Kathmandu, leaving substantial parts of the country out of the control of regional administrators. Even within the areas directly administered by the central government, agricultural lands were given away as jagir to the armed services and as birta to court favorites and retired servicemen. The holder of such grants in effect became the lord of the peasants working there, with little if any state interference. From the standpoint of the average cultivator, the government remained a distant force, and the main authority figure was the landlord, who took part of the harvest, or (especially in the Tarai) the tax collector, who was often a private individual contracted to extort money or crops in return for a share. For the leaders in the administration and the army, as military options became limited and alternative sources of employment grew very slowly, career advancement depended less on attention to local conditions than on loyalty to factions fighting at court.
Five leading families or factions contended for power during this period—the Shahs, Thapas, Basnyats, Pandes, and the Chautariyas, who were of Shah dynasty but acted as counsleors for the King. Working for these families and their factions were hill Brahmans, who acted as religious preceptors or astrologers, and Newars, who occupied secondary administrative positions. No one else in the country had any influence on the central government. When a family or faction achieved power, it killed, exiled, or demoted members of opposing alliances. Under these circumstances, there was little opportunity for either public political life or coordinated economic development.
The struggle for power at the court had unfortunate consequences for both foreign affairs and for internal administration. All parties tried to satisfy the army in order to avoid interference in court affairs by leading commanders, and the military was given a free hand to pursue ever larger conquests. As long as the Gorkhas were invading disunited hill states, this policy—or lack of policy—was adequate. Inevitably, continued aggression led Nepal into disastrous collisions with the Chinese and then with the British. At home, because power struggles centered on control of the king, there was little progress in sorting out procedures for sharing power or expanding representative institutions. A consultative body of nobles, a royal court called the Assembly of Lords (Bharadari Sabha), was in place after 1770 and it had substantial involvement in major policy issues. The assembly consisted of high government officials and leading courtiers, all heads of important Gorkha families. In the intense atmosphere surrounding the monarch, however, the Assembly of Lords broke into factions that fought for access to the prime minister or regent, and alliances developed around patron/client relationships.
Downfall: 1832 - 1838
Death of Queen Tripurasundari
Thus far, Bhimsen was making all the administrative decisions of the country, while the Regent Queen Tripurasundari would unquestioningly approve these decisions by stamping the royal seal issued in the name of King Rajendra on these government orders. The Regent never dared to express any doubts regarding Bhimsen's decisions. Nevertheless, to make sure that the King, his wives — Samrajya Laxmi Devi (senior) and Rajya Lakshmi Devi (junior) — and the Regent were insulated from influences of people other than Bhimsen and his closest relatives, Bhimsen had instated his youngest brother, General Ranbir Singh Thapa, in the royal palace to keep a watch on the royal family and to keep guard against any outside person. Any priest or courtier who wished to be granted an interview with the King, the Queens, or the Regent, had to get an approval from Ranbir Singh and the interview had to be conducted under his watchful presence. Bhimsen had also neglected the formal education of Rajendra, due to which he had grown to be uncritical and weak minded to the extent that he was even unaware that he was virtually a prisoner. However, his wives were more alert and wary of Bhimsen since they received unfiltered news of the world outside the royal palace from their handmaidens, who would leave the palace compounds and go to their homes during their menstruation and gather news and rumors of the day, which they would then relate to the Queens.
The power balance began to change after King Rajendra came of age and his grandmother, Tripurasundari, died on 26 March, 1832 due to cholera. Bhimsen lost his main support and the court became a stage for a power struggle, which even though started off as an attempt to assert the King's authority from the Mukhtiyar, spread to various aristocratic clans and their attempt to secure total authority. It was no secret that Bhimsen was able to maintain his supremacy due to the large standing army under his and his family's command; and in the subsequent years, different factions would attempt to increase their influence based on the strength of the number of battalions under their grip. After Tripurasundari's death, the royal seal by which government orders were approved naturally went into the hands of the senior queen Samrajya Laxmi, who knew all too well of its powers and wanted to emulate the queens of the past by establishing her own regency. Sensing Samrajya Laxmi's ambition, Ranbir Singh started to stroke her dislike of Bhimsen in the hopes of becoming the mukhtiyar himself. Getting a whiff of this matter, Bhimsen strongly reprimanded Ranbir Singh which caused him to resign from his General's position and live in retirement in his house at Sipamandan. However, Bhimsen later managed to placate his brother, by giving him the title of Chota (Little) General, and send him to Palpa as its governor. Since he could find nobody that he could trust to keep watch over the royal palace, Bhimsen from then on started to live in an ordinary rented house located near the palace premise.
Sharing of administrative duties
The King and the Queens also started to openly challenge Bhimsen's authority. By this time, Rajendra and his wives had heard the widespread rumor that Bhimsen, in order to remain in power, had killed the late King Girvan and his wives by administering poison a few days after Girvan's coming off age. So when Rajendra was afflicted by an ordinary illness, the Queens cautioned the King and prohibited him to take the medicine offered by the royal physician, Sardar Ekdev Upadhyay, who was loyal to Bhimsen. Similarly, during the annual muster of 1833, during which the civil and military officers were promoted, renewed, retained, or retired, everything was conducted according to Bhimsen's plan, but Rajendra delayed the retainment of Bhimsen's own position as the Mukhtiyar.
This forced Bhimsen to share the administrative burden between Rajendra, Samrajya Laxmi, and himself, and ask for their opinions on administrative matters, in order to reduce further friction between himself and the royalty. Rajendra was put in charge of defense, finance, and foreign relations; while Samrajya Laxmi was put in charge of justice, accountancy, and civil administration. Nevertheless, Rajendra's activities were heavily influenced by the advice of Samrajya Laxmi, while the Junior Queen Rajya Laxmi had no say in any matter; furthermore, the King and the Senior Queen did not dare yet to outright dismiss Bhimsen's plans and advice, fearful of the large army under his commanded. This arrangement worked well for the next three years; for instance, that year, Nepal was struck by a great earthquake, and all three power holders were able to coordinate with each other and provide emergency relief to the citizens.
Failure of Mathabar Singh Thapa's mission to Britain
That same year, Brian Hodgson, who had spend many years in Nepal serving as the Assistant Resident, and who had a good knowledge about Nepal's bio-diversity, culture, and politics, became the new British Resident. Although the British Residents were officially instructed to kept out of the internal politics of Nepal, the Resident was courted by both the King as well as the Mukhtiyar; and Hodgson was waiting for an opportunity to exploit the rift between the Mukhtiyar and the royal family and begin a more aggressive campaign to increase British influence and trading opportunities. Hodgson also believed the large standing army to be a security threat and that the border tensions could be pacified if the King was directly in control, rather than a mukhtiyar who needed to keep on the right side of the army. By 1834, Hodgson had come to a conclusion that he would not be able to have his way so long as Bhimsen was in control of the Nepalese administration; thus he strongly sympathized with the Pande faction, and he wished to install Fateh Jung Shah, who was more favorably disposed to him, as the mukhtiyar. In August 1834, Hodgson proposed to conduct a new commercial treaty between Nepal and Britain, which Bhimsen in principle agreed to, but the clauses of which had been met with several disagreements. At a time when his authority was diminishing, Bhimsen could not afford to antagonize the Resident; but at the same time, he could not accept his proposals and be seen as subservient to the British by the Nepalese court. Nevertheless, he tried to maintain a friendly and conciliatory attitude toward the Resident, in order to win him as his ally, by loosening the restrictions on his movements and granting direct access to the King.
In the meantime, a royal letter were received from the Maharaja Ranjit Singh, ruler of Sikh Empire in Punjab, addressed to King Rajendra. The Nepalese court seized this opportunity to establish diplomatic contact with Punjab as well as other states such as Burma and Gwalior. In April 1835, Bhimsen also hatched a plan to make a state visit to Britain, hoping to force Britain to acknowledge the sovereignty of Nepal; but since he could not make the visit himself, his nephew Colonel Mathabar Singh Thapa was chosen as the representative of Nepal, bearing a few gifts and a letter from King Rajendra addressed to King William IV. The idea was initially received favorably by Hodgson as well as the Governor-General, who hoped that the mission could increase the trust between the two nations. In this process, Mathabar Singh was promoted to Chota General; his brother, Ranbir Singh, the governor of Palpa, was made Full General; and Mathabar's nephew, the sixteen year old Sherjung Thapa, was made Commanding Colonel. Thus, Bhimsen managed to consolidate his military powers. Both Rajendra and Samrajya Laxmi were also pleased with this plan, and on 1 November 1835, Bhimsen was conferred the title of Commander-in-Chief. On 27 November 1835, Mathabar Singh left Kathmandu with a retinue of two thousand men, including 200 officers and 600 soldiers, for London via Calcutta.
Mathabar was given a grand welcome in Calcutta by the acting Governor-General Charles Metcalfe; and while there, Mathabar started to indulge in needless luxuries and show offs. Meanwhile, Hodgson sent a secret letter to Metcalfe asking him not to allow Mathabar to make a state visit to Britain. Hence, Metcalfe was only willing to grant him the visa of an ordinary traveler, and not the diplomatic visa of a state representative. Mathabar thus returned to Nepal in March 1836, having wasted a vast sum of money, without accomplishing any of his goals. The deliberate sabotage of Mathabar's mission was Hodgson's diplomatic strike against Bhimsen. Until that time, it was widely believed by both the royal family as well as the common people that Bhimsen's good relationship with the high ranking British officials, since he was the only one allowed to communicate with the them, was responsible for preventing the East India Company to take full control of Nepal. The mission's failure unambiguously revealed to everyone that this was not the case, and severely undermined Bhimsen's political credibility. Mathabar's extravagant expenditure was also heavily criticized by Samrajya Laxmi, since at that time the state coffer was in dire condition; and to pacify her, Bhimsen had to reimburse the extra expenses from him own pockets.
Rise of the Pandes
By this time, Ranjang Pande, the youngest son of Damodar Pande, was stationed as a captain in Kathmandu. He was aware of the disunity between the Samrajya Laxmi and Bhimsen, and thus he had secretly expressed his loyalty to Samrajya Laxmi and had vowed to help her in bringing Bhimsen down for all the wrongs he had committed against his family. Factions in the Nepalese court had also started to develop around the rivalry between the two queens, with the senior queen supporting the Pandes, while the junior queen supporting the Thapas. About a month after Mathabar's return to Kathmandu, a child was born out of an adulterous relationship between him and his widowed sister-in-law. This news was spread all over the country by the Pandes, and the resulting public disgrace forced Mathabar to leave Kathmandu and reside in his ancestral home in Pipal Thok, Borlang, Gorkha. To save face, Bhimsen gave Mathabar the governorship of Gorkha.
Taking an advantage of Mathabar's absence in Kathmandu, the military battalions under his command were distributed to other courtiers during the annual muster at the beginning of 1837. Nevertheless, Bhimsen managed to secure his and his family members' positions in the civil and military offices. An investigation was also started to check Bhimsen's expenditures in establishing various battalions. Such events led the courtiers to feel that Bhimsen's Mukhtiyari would not last very long; thus Ranbir Singh, in the hopes of becoming the next Mukhtiyar, wrote a letter to the King asking him to be recalled to Kathmandu from Palpa. His wish was granted; and Bhimsen, pleased to see his brother after many years, made Ranbir Singh the acting Mukhtiyar and decided to go to his ancestral home in Borlang Gorkha for the sake of pilgrimage. But in truth, Bhimsen had gone to Gorkha to placate his nephew and bring him back to Kathmandu.
In Bhimsen's absence, Rajendra established a new battalion, Hanuman Dal, to be kept under his personal command. By February of 1837, both Ranjang Pande and his brother, Ranadal Pande, had been promoted to the position of a kaji; and Ranjang was made a personal secretary to the King, while Ranadal was made the governor of Palpa. Ranjang was also made the chief palace guard, the position formerly occupied by Ranbir Singh and then Bhimsen. Thus, this curtailed Bhimsen's access to the royal family. On 14 June, 1837, the King took over the command of all the battalions put in charge to various courtiers, and himself became the Commander-in-Chief.
On 24 July, 1837, Rajendra's youngest son, Devendra Bikram Shah, an infant of six months, died suddenly. It was at once rumored that the child had died of poison intended for his mother the Senior Queen Samrajya Laxmi Devi: given at the instigation of Bhimsen, or someone of his party. On this charge, Bhimsen, his brother Ranbir Singh, his nephew Mathbar Singh, their families, the court physicians, Ekdev and Eksurya Upadhyay, and his deputy Bhajuman Baidya, with a few more of the nearest relatives of the Thapas were incarcerated, proclaimed outcasts, and their property was confiscated. The physicians Ekdev and Eksurya, being Brahmins, were severely tortured but spared, while Bhajuman Baidya was impaled and killed. Under torture, Ekdev confessed, and thus confirmed a widely circulated rumor, that he was directed by Bhimsen to poison not just Devendra, but King Girvan as well.
There is a general consensus among historians that Bhimsen was not behind the poisoning. Bhimsen had nothing to gain by killing an infant less a year old, and the accusation was simply a ruse to answer foreign inquiries on Bhimsen's imprisonment. It was a general practice among the physicians of the time to check the strength of their medicine by first letting the mother taste it, before giving it to their new born. It was later rumored that it was the junior queen who had actually contrived to kill the senior queen by poisoning the medicine intended for her new born. While the poison did not express itself on the intended queen, it managed to kill the infant prince, and the powerless Bhimsen was made a convenient scapegoat. Historian Gyanmani Nepal contends this to be closer to the truth.
Dismissal from office and subsequent pardon
Immediately after the incarceration of the Thapas, a new government with joint mukhtiyars was formed with Rangnath Paudel as the head of civil administration, and Dalbarjan Pande and Ranjang Pande as joint heads of military administration. This appointment established the Pandes as the dominant faction in the court, and they started to make preparations for war with the British in order to win back the lost territories of Kumaon and Garhwal. While such war posturing was nothing new, the din the Pandes created alarmed not just the Resident Hodgson but the opposing court factions as well, who saw their aggressive policy as detrimental to the survival of the country. After about three months in power, under pressure from the opposing factions, the King removed Ranjang as Mukhtiyar and Ranganath Paudel, who was favorably inclined towards the Thapas, was chosen as the sole Mukhtiyar.
Fearful that the Pandes would re-establish their power, Fatte Jang Shah, Rangnath Poudel, and the Junior Queen Rajya Laxmi Devi obtained from the King the liberation of Bhimsen, Mathabar, and the rest of the party, about eight months after they were incarcerated for the poisoning case. Some of their confiscated land as well as the Bagh Durbar was also returned. Upon his release, the soldiers loyal to Bhimsen crowded behind him in jubilation and followed him up to his house; a similar treatment was given to Mathabar Singh and Sherjung Thapa. Although pardon had been granted to Bhimsen, his former office was not re-instated; thus he went to live in retirement at his patrimony in Borlang, Gorkha.
However, Rangnath Poudel, finding himself unsupported by the King, resigned from the Mukhtiyari, which was then conferred on Pushkar Shah; but Puskhar Shah was only a nominal head, and the actual authority was bestowed on Ranjang Pande. Sensing that a catastrophe was going to befall the Thapas, Mathabar Singh fled to India while pretending to go on a hunting trip; Ranbir Singh gave up all his property and became a sanyasi, titling himself Abhayanand Puri; but Bhimsen Thapa preferred to remain in his old home in Gorkha. The Pandes were now in full possession of power; they had gained over the king to their side by flattering his weaknesses. The senior queen had been a firm supporter of their party; and they endeavored to secure popularity in the army by promises of war and plunder.
At the beginning of 1839, Ranjang Pande was made the sole Mukhtiyar. However, knowledge about Ranjang's war preparations and his communication with other princely states of India, fomenting anti-British sentiments, alarmed the Governor-General of the time, Lord Auckland, who mobilized some British troops near the border of Nepal. In order to resolve this diplomatic fiasco, Bhimsen was recalled from Gorkha and the rest of his confiscated property was also released. Bhimsen suggested that some of the battalions under Ranjang's command to be given to other courtiers, thus severely weakening Ranjang's military power, and in the process convincing the British that Nepal was not on the path of war. The King agreed to this arrangement; however this aroused a strong suspicion in Samrajya Laxmi, who determined to eradicate Bhimsen's influence permanently.
The accusation of poisoning the young prince in 1837, along with two other fabricated cases, was revived against Bhimsen and his party, and forged papers and evidence were produced professing to incriminate him. Bhimsen appealed for justice and tried to defend himself, but the King, blindly believing the forgeries, denounced him as a traitor and put him in house arrest in a room at the ground floor of his own Bagh Durbar. Although pardon had already be given, based on these forged evidence, the court physicians, Ekdev and Eksurya Upadhyay were again arrested and tortured. Except for Mathabar Singh, who managed to escape to India, rest of the Thapa family were again arrested, their properties confiscated, were declared outcasts, and were proclaimed to be expelled from every public offices for seven generations.
While under house arrest, Bhimsen's third wife, Bhakta Kumari, happened to insult the Senior Queen Samrajya Laxmi, who upon hearing about this insult, was so angered that she order Bhakta Kumari to be removed from Bagh Durbar and put in a stricter jail. After this, a rumor started to spread around Kathmandu that Bhakta Kumari would be stripped off her clothes and paraded through the streets of the city. This rumor also fell on Bhimsen's ears; and unable to bear such indignity, Bhimsen attempted suicide by slitting his throat with a khukuri on 28 July, 1839. The news of this attempted suicide further angered the King and the Queen, who came to look at his body, and instead of feeling sympathy for the old minister and ordering immediate medical care, Bhimsen's blood soaked, unconscious body was ordered that same day to be dragged through the streets and dumped by the same bank of Bishnumati river, where Bhimsen had dumped the dead bodies of 45 people 33 years ago during the Bhandarkhal massacre. Bhimsen finally died nine days later, surrounded by vultures, jackals, and dogs, on 5 August, 1939, at the age of 64. Since suicide was considered a grave crime, soldiers were stationed at his death spot so that his body would not be removed and given ordinary cremation rites; and his body was devoured by vultures, jackals, and dogs. On the spot where Bhimsen drew his last breath, a Shiva temple by the name Bhim-Mukteshowr was later constructed by his nephew Mathabar Singh Thapa.
While there is a general consensus on the cause and circumstances of Bhimsen's death, there is a disagreement on the exact date of his death. Baburam Acharya contends that Bhimsen attempted suicide on 28 July in his house and died nine days later on 5 August by the banks of Bishnumati; while Henry Oldfield, K.L. Pradhan, and Gyanmani Nepali contend that the suicide was attempted on 20 July and the death occurred nine days later on 28 July in his house, only after which his dead body was disposed by the banks of Bishnumati.
The fall of Bhimsen Thapa did nothing to solve the factional fighting at court. The Pandes were dismissed, and Fateh Jang Shah was appointed prime minister in November 1840. His ministry was unable to control renewed competition between a resurgent Thapa coalition and the disgraced Pandes, who preferred the abdication of the King in favor of the heir apparent. The King became increasingly attentive to the advice of his wives. Under intense pressure from the aristocracy, the King decreed in January 1843 that he would rule the country only with advice and agreement of his Junior Queen, Rajya Lakshmi Devi, and commanded his subjects to obey her even over his own son, Surendra. The Queen, seeking support of her own son's claims to the throne over those of Surendra Bikram Shah, invited back from exile Mathabarsingh Thapa, who was popular in army circles. Upon his arrival in Kathmandu, an investigation of his uncle's death took place, and a number of his Pande enemies were executed. By December 1843, Mathbar Singh was appointed prime minister, but he proved no more capable of extinguishing court intrigues than had his predecessors. Against the wishes of the Queen, he supported heir apparent Surendra. Once Mathbar Singh had alienated the person who officially wielded state authority, his days were numbered. On May 17, 1845, he was killed, most likely on the Queen's orders. The assassin apparently was Jang Bahadur, his nephew, then a minor but rising star in court politics.
The death of Mathabar Singh set the stage for one of the crucial sequences of events in modern Nepalese history—the destruction of the old aristocracy in an event known as Kot massacre and the establishment of Rana Dynasty, a dictatorship of the prime minister. These events provided the long period of stability the country needed but at the cost of political and economic development.
- The position of mukhtiyar was roughly equivalent to a prime minister. The first mukhtiyar to title himself as a prime minister, as per the British convention, was Bhimsen's nephew, Mathabar Singh Thapa.
- Not to be confused with the better known commander of Gorkhali forces in the Gurkha War with the same name. The two Amar Singhs are differentiated by the qualifier Bada (greater) and Sanu (lesser).
- Rana Bahadur Shah had two legitimate wives before marrying Kantavati. His first wife was Rajrajeshwori Devi with whom he begot one daughter. His second wife was Subarnaprabha Devi with whom he begot two sons, Rana Udghot Shah and Shamsher Shah. Rana Udghot Shah was the eldest male heir apparent of Rana Bahadur Shah.
- From here on Rana Bahadur Shah became known as Swami Maharaj. Rana Bahadur however was an ascetic in name only. Although Rana Bahadur left the royal duties after his abdication, he did not relinquish any of its privileges and luxuries.
- The treaty was signed by Gajraj Misra, on the behalf of Nepal Durbar, and Charles Crawford, on the behalf of East India Company, in Danapur, India. Among the articles in the treaty, it decided on perpetual peace and friendship between the two states, on the pension for Rana Bahadur Shah, the establishment of a British Residency in Kathmandu, and a establishment of trade relations between the two states.
- Knox had previously accompanied Captain William Kirkpatrick in the 1792 British diplomatic mission to Nepal as a Lieutenant in charge of the military escort. In Knox's 1801 mission, he was accompanied by experts like the naturalist Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, who later published An Account of the Kingdom of Nepal in 1819, and the surveyor Charles Crawford, who made the first scientific maps of Kathmandu valley and of Nepal, and proposed that the Himalayas might be among the highest mountains in the world.
- Among those who managed to escape to India were Damodar Pande's sons Karbir Pande and Ranjang Pande.
- Bhimsen Thapa blinded three Shah infants (Bir Bhadra Shah, Bhim Pratap Shah, Bhim Rudra Shah) who were heirs to Bagh Durbar, a palace with large garden and compound near Tundikhel, which he appropriated for himself. He also blinded another Shah infant (Kul Chandra Shah), who was an heir to a palace at Indra Chowk, which he gave to Rangnath Paudel.
- Sher Bahadur Shah had switched his allegiance at the crucial moment which had allowed Damodar Pande to be arrested at Thankot.
- After the execution of Damodar Pande, some of his sons had managed to escape to India. During the Anglo-Nepalese War, Ranjang Pande had informed Ranbir Singh Thapa that the British would be off guard during Christmas. Following this advice, Ranbir Singh was able to obtain a major victory during a battle in Parsa. This won the Pandes the trust of Ranbir Singh, which eventually led to their pardon by King Girvan as well as the reinstatement of their seized patrimony.
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